Posts filed under ‘Heraldry’

Coat of arms / ‘family crest’

Some interesting comments in my last blog post (‘You only have to look’) made me wish I’d replied into a separate blog post, so at least the comments related to the topic.

Someone said in a comment: Those “accept anything they find without question” folks must be the ones who patronize those generic “family crest” suppliers where you get a crest of somebody, somewhere, who happens to share your surname.

I disagreed because I think you can hang anything on your wall that takes your interest, but to say “my great grandfather was …” without sufficient cross-checking to ensure you have the ancestor who belongs to you – well it might be a very interesting family tree, but it’s not yours. And I guess that’s the same point the commenter made about how many people think of a ‘family’ coat of arms.

To be entitled to use a coat of arms you must have either been granted it yourself or be descended in the male line from the original grantee.

My point was that I might know that, and not actually use the arms, but still be interested in them as a curiosity.

However the mention of a ‘family crest’ touched a particular irritation with me. There’s no such thing as a ‘family crest’.

The term ‘coat of arms’ (or ‘armorial bearings’ or just ‘arms’) descends from the days when knights in battles or tournaments wanted to be identifiable, and with the visor of their helmets down, clad in armour, it was difficult to tell friend from foe, so they started to paint the symbols that identified the knight onto a sleeveless linen surcoat, worn over the armour.

Different parts of the armour had different names, and some of those names continue in the words used to describe ‘armorial bearings’ (what we think of as ‘coats of arms’).

The only essential part of the armour was the shield (which could be different shapes & sizes). The crest was ornamentation that might have been worn on top of the helmet and usually was chosen as a bird or beast that the knight thought reflected his martial qualities.

So a crest was optional, but you cannot have a crest without arms. So please – refer to a ‘coat of arms’ not to a ‘family crest’!

Fraser of Lovat

Coat of arms

10 January, 2011 at 6:17 pm 1 comment


Discoveries and musings of a family history researcher and instructor - including tips and hints.

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